British Columbia

Raghbir Dosanjh died of COVID-19. This is why his family wants you to know his story

Raghbir Dosanjh had the kind of depressed look on his face that even strangers couldn't ignore. It was 1970, his young family still in India, and their future was in the hands of Canadian immigration officials who decided to review his case upon learning he only had five dollars in his wallet.

Dosanjh, 86, was a hard worker, tireless volunteer and loving husband, father and grandfather

Raghbir Dosanjh's family visited him during the pandemic lockdown to celebrate his 86th birthday at the Worthington Pavilion rehabilitation unit in Abbotsford, B.C., where he contracted COVID-19. (Submitted by family)

Raghbir Dosanjh had the kind of depressed look on his face that even strangers couldn't ignore. It was 1970, his young family still in India, and their future was in the hands of Canadian immigration officials who decided to review his case upon learning he only had five dollars in his wallet.

A couple passing by at the airport in Toronto asked him what was wrong. When they heard his story, they each gave him $100.

Dosanjh became a Canadian on Remembrance Day that year.

His son Rav says he spent years working in a lumber mill, saving up enough money to bring his family from Punjab, eventually moving them into a modest home Abbotsford, B.C., where he'd started farming.

"The conditions were horrible back then," Rav said. "It was basically a starting point for us."

Dosanjh, 86, worked hard, saved his money and built a good life for his four children. He was a tireless volunteer at his gurdwara, loved his eight grandchildren and had a love-hate relationship with the Vancouver Canucks.

He died April 17 after contracting COVID-19.

His family is sharing his story to honour Dosanjh, but also to illustrate that the 167 people in B.C. who've died from the disease are just that — people — and not statistics.

From left, Rav Dosanjh, Sharisse Birk, Karena Dosanjh and Rani Birk are pictured in Rav's home where he lived with his father Raghbir Singh Dosanjh in Abbotsford, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Strict father, cuddly grandpa

Dosanjh wanted to pass along his strong work ethic to his four children, which is why his daughter Rani Birk says he was strict as they worked in the fields alongside him.

"We would see how much he had to struggle, but he never cheated anybody," she said.

"You work hard, you save and you set your own path. That's what he taught us."

In the mid-1980s, Dosanjh had a health scare and needed a major operation, which prompted some lifestyle changes. He was never a big drinker, but he swore off booze altogether, watched what he ate and took long, daily walks.

When he became a grandpa, the stern man who toiled the berry fields melted into a hugger who couldn't spoil his grandchildren enough.

"I tell the kids he was strict," Birk said, laughing. "They're like, 'really?' That was grandpa?' "

Rav says his dad was always independent, even in his later years, insisting on taking the bus to the gurdwara where he volunteered every morning.

He was happy, healthy and finally, after a life of hard work, beginning to relax. Then he got sick.

Rani Birk sorts through pictures of her late father. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Last days

When Rav Dosanjh came home in January and saw his father wasn't feeling well, he immediately knew something was wrong.

Raghbir Dosanjh couldn't move the right side of his body, was slurring his speech and, always the tough guy, insisted he'd be fine in the morning. He'd had a stroke.

He was showing signs of progress after a few months at Worthington Pavilion's rehabilitation unit in Abbotsford which was closed to visitors in mid-March when the pandemic hit.

Dosanjh loved to return to India where he'd put on his sunglasses and rip around on a scooter, visiting friends and family. (Submitted by family)

Rav got a call from a friend in early April, notifying him that he'd heard on the radio there was an outbreak at the facility.

He says staff assured him that his father had no contact with the person who'd been infected, but shortly after he brought Dosanjh home, he was hospitalized.

"They called the next day saying he tested positive for COVID-19 and then, four or five hours later, they called saying it was serious," Rav said.

"That same night we got a call saying you guys can come say your final goodbyes."

Dosanjh was placed on a ventilator and died days later. 

The memorial service was restricted to close family due to physical distancing rules, but was streamed online so that Dosanjh's extensive network of friends and family could watch.

"I broke down at the funeral because I was very close to him," Rav said. "He's always lived with me."

Rav Dosanjh and Rani Birk with their father's photograph. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Saying goodbye

Shortly before Dosanjh got sick, Birk and her family visited him at the care facility to celebrate his 86th birthday.

They were separated by glass because of health and safety rules, but they got to sing happy birthday and watch his face twist into the kind of joyful expression only grandchildren can create. 

Her son captured the moment with a perfect photograph.

The look on his face in that picture is how they'll always remember him — proud of the family he worked so hard to provide for and grateful for the joy that they brought him in return.

To hear Raghbir Dosanjh's children remember their father on The Early Edition, tap the audio link below:

Daughter Rani Birk and son Rav Dosanjh speak with Laura Lynch about the life of their father who died of complications from Covid-19 10:30

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

About the Author

Jesse Johnston worked in private radio from 2004 to 2014 in Vancouver, Red Deer and Calgary. He spent the next five years based out of Surrey (his hometown) as CBC's South of the Fraser reporter until he joined the Impact Team in 2019. Jesse is a two-time recipient of the RTDNA Dave Rogers Award for Best Short Radio Feature. He loves radio, running and dogs. He also loves the Detroit Lions, but if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that. @Jesse_Johnston

With files from Cathy Browne

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